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The Bull from the Sea is the sequel to Mary Renault’s earlier novel The King Must Die (1958), which concludes as Theseus, the young prince of Athens, returns triumphantly from Crete. Theseus narrates both novels in the first person, and as with The King Must Die, the plot of The Bull from the Sea unfolds chronologically, arranged in sections named for the geographical settings of the action.

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In the first section, “Marathon,” Theseus’ return is marred by the death of his father, Aegeus, who, believing that his son is dead because Theseus failed to change his sail color to white, leaps to his death. Theseus’ first order of business as Athens’ new king is to arrange a fitting funeral for Aegeus. Always politically shrewd, Theseus immediately begins the unification of Attica by ensuring the loyalties of the local barons and eliminating those who would impede unification. One of these is the mythic character Procrustes, whom Theseus orders killed in the famous bed that was used to shorten or lengthen victims’ bodies.

After fighting a war in Crete to secure his power there, Theseus visits Troizen, the city where he was reared by his grandfather King Pittheus. His mother, Aithra, a priestess of Mother Dia (Demeter, goddess of fertility), decides that he must undergo cleansing rites of appeasement. She believes that Mother Dia, also called “the Mother,” is angry because Theseus changed the mother-worshiping city of Eleusis into a patriarchal culture and because he abandoned another matriarchal priestess, Ariadne, on the island of Naxos when he returned to Athens. Although Theseus completes the cleansing rites, his antipathy toward Mother Dia continues. In this section, Theseus also meets Pirithoos (soon to be king of the Lapiths), who becomes his closest male friend, and Oedipus, the blind, exiled former king of Thebes. Oedipus comes to Athens to die and is given protection by Theseus.

In the “Pontos” section, Theseus and Pirithoos take to the seas for adventure and piracy, traveling east into territory ruled by the Amazons, female warriors who live without men. Here Theseus encounters Hippolyta, the beautiful young leader of the Amazons, falls immediately in love with her, and defeats her in combat. Having agreed to return with him to Athens if she loses, she does so, falling in love with him during the journey. Although for political reasons the two do not marry, they live together as man and wife, and she gives birth to their son, Hippolytos. Political pressure forces Theseus to marry the Cretan princess Phaedra, although she does not come to Athens, and he remains deeply in love with Hippolyta until her death during a battle with her own people.

In “Epidauros,” Theseus brings Phaedra and their son, Akamas, to Athens. Unknown to him, Phaedra falls obsessively in love with Hippolytos, who is a chaste worshiper of the virgin goddess Artemis and who wishes only to be a healer. When spurned by Hippolytos, Phaedra accuses him of rape, a charge that Theseus believes. He is told the true story of Phaedra’s lies by Akamas, but it is too late to save Hippolytos, who is killed by an earthquake. Enraged, Theseus strangles Phaedra and leaves a forged note claiming that she has taken her own life.

The final section, “Skyros,” details the decline and death of Theseus. Devastated by his son’s death, Theseus returns to piracy and then falls very ill. In his absence, Athens continues to become less unified and powerful. When he visits King Lykomedes of the island of Skyros, Theseus, like his father, chooses to take his own life, leaping off the cliffs.

Context

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Mary Renault did not consider herself a feminist and did not wish to be discussed as a “woman writer.” Her novels, including The Bull from the Sea, almost always focus on male protagonists and, as Carolyn Heilbrun has observed, fail to present powerful, independent women, instead depicting female characters as vulnerable and weak. Gender issues do, however, appear in Renault’s fiction, and the tension between male and female power is an essential structuring principle of The Bull from the Sea and its predecessor, The King Must Die.

Theseus’ response to the two women in his life defines the gender issues of this novel, which presents two very different female models. One, represented by Hippolyta, is essentially masculine, while Phaedra represents the female paradigm. There is no doubt which model is preferred by Theseus. Hippolyta’s courage, honesty, and trustworthiness, like her love of the outdoors and of physical activity, are coded as masculine values in The Bull from the Sea, just as Phaedra’s secrecy, dishonesty, and artificiality are coded as female qualities. Theseus’ entire career has been an attack on the female principle, particularly in its religious and political manifestations, and his murder of his wife is the culminating event of his pursuit of patriarchal power.

Renault strongly identified with masculine and, in Greek terms, Apollonian consciousness, naming her own home Delos after the island where Apollo was born. She was aware, however, that Theseus had failed to acknowledge and respect female power. According to David Sweetman’s biography of Renault, she conceded that her hero’s final tragedy was his inability to come to terms with his own feminine side, what psychologist Carl Jung called the anima. Theseus, she said, “has not reached the point of reconciliation with his anima, and of course the tragedy before him is inevitable; you could call the rest of the tale THE MOTHER STRIKES BACK.” “The Mother Strikes Back” would be an appropriate subtitle for The Bull from the Sea, in which Theseus does indeed pay the price for ignoring the power inherent in female consciousness.

Bibliography

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Burns, Landon D., Jr. “Men Are Only Men: The Novels of Mary Renault.” Critique 6 (Winter, 1963): 102-121. Burns analyzes The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea as “legendary romance” rather than historical fiction and believes that the most important aspect of both novels is Theseus’ progression toward his “tragic maturity.”

Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Although Renault’s earlier novels set in contemporary England are discussed briefly, this book focuses on the fiction that takes place in the ancient world, particularly Greece. Chapter 3, “To Be a King: The Theseus Novels,” looks at the sources of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea and analyzes both novels.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Women Writers and Female Characters: The Failure of Imagination.” In Reinventing Womanhood. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Heilbrun includes Renault among women writers who are unable to create characters that reflect their own autonomy and freedom and who instead affirm patriarchal structures. Renault is discussed within the context of writers such as Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, and Penelope Mortimer.

Sweetman, David. Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993. Sweetman looks at every aspect of Renault’s life and integrates discussions of her novels with the personal events of her life. This is the only biography available and does an excellent job of introducing Renault to the reader.

Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault. New York: Twayne, 1969. A full-length critical book on Renault that analyzes all of her work. Chapter 5, “The Mainland Savage,” contains an extended analysis of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. This study includes a chronology and bibliography, including secondary sources.

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